Profile: Poeh Center

Thursday, February, 14, 13 § 6 Comments

A visionary center in Northern New Mexico where education’s not about chasing urban jobs–it’s about thriving at home.

Picture from Poeh Center website:

Picture from Poeh Center website:

Place: Pojoaque Pueblo, NM (14 miles north of Santa Fe). Pop 2700, including approximately 450 enrolled members of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, a Tewa-speaking Native American group that has lived in the area for nearly 1000 years.

History: Founded in 1988.

The Skinny: A revolution in the concept of “vocational” education. Rather than train for money-based jobs that draw people out of the community, the Poeh Center offers programs that empower Native Americans to explore traditional and modern arts, develop their skills as entrepreneurs, and discover—or rediscover—who they are.

What Matters: A new aim for school: Find yourself, here.

More info:

I’d visited the Poeh Center once before, maybe in 2010. Curious about the two-story circular building along the highway just north of Santa Fe, I’d stopped in and found an exceptional gallery, displaying the work of world-renowned sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, from nearby Santa Clara Pueblo.

But when I visited again in May of 2012, I learned that Poeh is far more than a tourist attraction or gallery. It’s a visionary learning space, whose approach to teaching and learning other communities would do well to observe.

I came on the invitation of Phil Karshis, a friend and former teacher of mine, and for over a decade the Arts Training Coordinator of the Center. We met up in his office with Navajo artist Fritz Casuse, one of Poeh’s jewelry-making instructors. I opened the interview as I do at all learning centers: I took out a pen and asked for an overview of the curriculum.

Phil glanced at Fritz, then smiled. “I’d say we’ve boiled it down to four essential areas, over the years: Being, Sharing, Doing and Laughing.”

“Don’t forget Eating,” Fritz added, with a laugh. I capped my pen, and sat back as Phil explained that Poeh did not have a typical curriculum, because it was not a typical place. It was founded in the late 1980’s, when the unemployment rate at Pojoaque Pueblo was similar to those of many other Native American communities: around 80%. According to Phil, most tribes take the conventional (and generally ineffective) approach to battling unemployment—they use federal funds to provide job-training courses that certify people as technical workers, like dental assistants or heavy machine operators. But as those jobs are not readily available in the Pueblo itself, graduates of the programs often end up moving away—and unemployment within the community remains as high as ever.

“The idea here,” Phil said, “is to get people to stick around.”

Fritz’s jewelry-making class was about to begin, so they walked me down to the classroom, a spacious studio equipped with high tables and a machinery room. No cheap drop ceilings or drywall here: Longtime Pojoaque Governor George Rivera, one of the main drivers of Poeh, insisted on creating spaces of beauty, highlighting local and natural materials. Thick adobe walls. Gorgeous flagstone floors. Massive stones and wooden beam accents.

But despite the museum quality of the architecture, the classroom felt like a home, unpretentious and inviting. That’s by design: Poeh is all about accessibility. All of its courses are open enrollment and tuition free (space permitting) for any person enrolled in any Native American tribe in the nation. There are no entrance exams or prerequisites. Neither is there any of the unattrative pressure and hustle that characterize so many conventional education programs. In Fritz’s class, for example, there were no bells, or strict schedules: the students trickled in as they arrived, lugging plastic tool boxes and material cases, stopping to greet each other along the way.

“We call them ‘classes,’” Phil said, “but we’re not worried about exact starting and ending times. Some people come and stay the whole day, others drop in for an hour or two, as they can.”

When everyone had shown up, more or less, Fritz invited his dozen or so students to the front of the room. An early “graduate” of Poeh, and an extremely highly-respected artist in his own right, Fritz is a natural with the Poeh teaching approach. He is not there to flaunt his knowledge and expertise but to share it. He views himself as but one artist among many, encouraging, guiding, and inviting the others to explore and take risks. His “lecture” consisted of nothing more than an introduction to me and a few general instructions and deadlines. Then he stopped, and let the students begin.

Some got right to work, bending over precious stones or silver chains, picking up their projects where they’d last left off, but a few ladies moved over to a long table off to the side of the room, where they sat to share some food they’d brought in while poking fun of Phil and chatting about children, tribal politics and life. I asked them why they came to Poeh.

“For me, it’s like therapy for me,” said one of the women, whose husband had passed away a few years before. “It’s nurturing.” Another said it was a way to reconnect to her roots, and recalled how she used to help her grandmother make jewelry.

Clearly, they also came because they enjoyed each other’s company—the Sharing and Laughing (and Eating) curricula at work. But I was surprised to discover that they were also very much into the Doing. When they invited me over to their work stations, I found that they were designing and crafting intricate silver bracelets and unique necklaces, authentic, professional works of artistic jewelry that, when finished, would have plenty of market value, on top of the sentimental.

Which is why Poeh can legitimately report to the Federal Government that they are offering a program of “vocational education.” No, it does not churn out certified industry workers. It does something better: it creates independent entrepreneurs, empowered artists and artisans who can sell their creations and enhance their incomes while staying connected to their culture, their identity, and their sense of place.

The students varied greatly in age and life experience. I spoke at length with one of the youngest students, a budding artist named Aaron who was maybe in his late 20’s. As he worked at a bracelet that suggested the markings of a Navajo clay pot, he explained that he’d tried taking art classes at UNM, but found the atmosphere competitive and uninspiring. At Poeh, under the individualized guidance of Fritz and other teachers, he’d felt his skills and artistic confidence flourish—so much that he had recently moved from Albuquerque to Pojoaque so he could take classes and make use of the studio six days a week.

Like all students who finish Poeh’s courses, Aaron will be awarded completion certificates at the end of the term, good for credit at one of two local colleges. But he wasn’t in it for the Carnegie Units.

“I love this place,” he said. “It’s giving me just what I need.”

As Phil and I left, an hour or so later, I asked a few typical white guy questions about the number of people served, economic impact, etc. He shrugged.

“I could show you the numbers we collect for the Feds,” he says. “But it’s impossible to measure the impact of a place like this. People come. They reconnect with their culture. They find themselves. They stay. How do you measure the impact of that?”

He’s right. Measurements and data only take us so far, especially in a field as inherently blurry as human learning. The internationally acclaimed Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy are famous for telling visitors they have never measured how their students do when they enter the conventional school system. Without being arrogant, they simply know they’re doing what’s best for the children.

The same is true of Poeh. 100% tailored to the modern Native American culture and experience, it’s doing what’s best for the Pojoaque Pueblo, and for the Native communities nearby. And though its curriculum and architecture cannot be replicated, its philosophy can. For the Poeh Center offers education at its finest: a genuine opportunity for economic advancement, human expression, and the rediscovery of the power and beauty of home.

-Seth Biderman | Site Visited in May, 2012


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